You might be surprised to learn that training on IT subjects such as planning, IT processes and lifecycle management can be... boring.

Because those areas are critical to effective IT service management - the alignment of systems with processes and people in the organisation - this training must be done. But like a primary school class that makes science projects, HP has come up with a way to make the training fun as well as instructive.

The approach is Formula One racing. To teach IT service management principles, HP ran a simulation of a mock Formula One race recently in San Francisco. We didn't get to drive real racing cars; it was all done on a laptop computer.

HP's IT Service Management business has for about a year run business simulations with client firms worldwide as part of their training for ITIL certification. ITIL stands for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, a set of industry best practices to help businesses match information technology to business goals.

Here's how the racing simulation works: the HP racing team has four Formula One cars in a field of 20. Each of the cars has 13 complex IT systems that keep it running, such as hydraulics, engine monitoring, traction control and so forth. During the race, some of these systems malfunction in one or more of the cars, sounding an alarm. The drivers communicate the problem to a help desk and the help desk contacts the IT staff to fix the problem.

To make it interesting, the simulation exacts a penalty for not fixing problems quickly. If one of the cars has a problem it slows down and is passed up by a competing car. And to prove that time is money, the cars' standing in the race affects the value of sponsorships of the HP team. Each time an HP car was passed, the team lost $600,000 in sponsorships.

To add to the pressure, the roar of the race track played through speakers.

In the first race, our team was in chaos. The help desk looked up the system problem on a list with number codes. The IT staff then had to look up which server on the network runs a particular system. The IT staff had trouble tracing the problems and sometimes fixed the wrong problem. All the while, the HP cars were falling further behind while the value of the endorsement contracts plummeted.

New IT service management practices were in place for a second race. One organiser kept track of the system problems and dispensed with confusing code numbers. That made it easier for the IT staff to diagnose and fix a problem. Also, because they kept track of when repeated problems occurred, they didn't have to dig for a fix when the problem happened again.

This time, HP cars finished second and third.

Lesson learned: if you improve your business processes and people communicate better, your technology can help you win the race. A company can spend millions on IT, "but the biggest problems are people and processes," said Brian Brouilette, vice-president of technology services, mission-critical, networking and education services at HP. "If you put 100 percent of your focus on the technology, you miss two-thirds of the problem."

HP has run the Formula One race simulation in training employees of package delivery service DHL International worldwide, as well as with employees of the mobile phone network provider O2.

They did not find it dry or boring.

"When people participate in the races they almost invariably have a much better time than they anticipated," said David Wheeldon, an HP employee in the UK who also serves on the ITIL certification board.

HP rival IBM also teaches ITIL certification as part of its IT service management practice. An IBM executive was dismissive of HP's race.

The simulation only focuses on reaction to 'trouble tickets', identifying a problem with an IT system and fixing it, said Bob Madey, vice-president of strategy and market management at IBM's Tivoli business unit. Total IT service management means paying attention to more than just IT, Madey said.

"Why is the car not running? Well, maybe the car wasn't running because the petrol trucks can't get in to deliver fuel to them. It's the entire business service that matters," he said.

The HP team doesn't disagree with that and added that the race is a supplement to lectures and other classroom instruction that cover more ground.

"If you bring technology, people and process together, IT is way more responsive to the needs of the business," said HP's Brouilette. "You bring all that stuff together and there's where the real magic happens."